Thursday, April 06, 2006


Proslavery Constitution?

A debate has recently broken out on H-SHEAR and H-SLAVERY about whether the Constitution is a "proslavery" document. (Click on the links above and scroll down to see the relevant threads.)

It's a perennial debate among historians, just as it was among abolitionists and anti-abolitionists in the early nineteenth century. But it's also a debate that seems to end in stalemate whenever it is argued. Even the late historian Don Fehrenbacher, who criticized historians like Paul Finkelman for arguing that the Constitution was proslavery, ultimately concluded in The Slaveholding Republic that "the case for an antislavery Constitution is just as strong as the case for a proslavery Constitution, but both depend on special pleading that ignores part of the evidence" (p. 46).

There's a lot of truth in that conclusion, but while reading through the posts on H-SHEAR and H-SLAVERY, I began to wonder whether the problem is not so much special pleading as it is imprecision. As some posters pointed out, it's not clear exactly what we are asking when we raise the question of whether the Constitution was "proslavery" or "antislavery." Usually that straightforward question conceals a welter of more particular questions, including but not limited to:
The answers to some of these questions do not necessarily bear on the answers to others. And very often it seems as though the defenders and critics of the "proslavery" Constitution are not disagreeing directly so much as they are asking different questions. Perhaps both sides would be better served by specifying exactly which of these valid questions they are addressing, instead of asking generally whether the Constitution was "proslavery" or "antislavery."

Another reason for avoiding those general terms, at least in this kind of debate, is that the words "proslavery" and "antislavery" are notoriously thorny. The forms of the words make them seem as though they represent two antithetical positions, but in fact the range of early American opinions about slavery were much more complex and much less bipolar. For example, many articulate eighteenth century Americans declared slavery a moral and political evil (for a variety of reasons that seldom if ever included a belief in the equality of people of color with whites) but also declared that emancipation would be an even greater evil. Yet if being philosophically "antislavery" did not necessarily render someone "pro-abolition," how should we characterize people who believed slavery was unjustifiable but also unalterable? "Proslavery" is too blunt a word for that nuanced position, no matter how indefensible the position is.

Consider also that many Northerners in the early republic who believed slavery was a great moral evil also believed it was unnecessary for the federal government to take action against it because the institution would eventually wither on its own. Were these people "antislavery," because they believed slavery to be wrong, or "proslavery," because they tolerated its existence for the time being? What about those who argued that the federal government should not prevent slavery from expanding into western territories because the diffusion of the slave population would hasten the institution's downfall? Misguided though such a forecast was, how should we characterize those who made it? In such a case, the bare words "antislavery" and "proslavery" may be more confusing than they are clarifying.

There certainly are contexts in which the words "antislavery" and "proslavery" are clarifying and appropriate. Immediatist abolitionists, who believed that slavery was a moral evil and began calling in the 1830s for immediate emancipation, were clearly "antislavery" in every sense of that term. Likewise, there were Southern ideologues in the antebellum period who clearly deserve the moniker "proslavery"--those who argued that slavery was a positive good and opposed any measure to emancipate slaves or limit the legal rights of masters. But such robust defenses of slavery as a necessary good were exceedingly scarce in the 1780s when the Constitution was drafted, and no critic of slavery was calling for an immediate end to slavery even in the North.

Collective Improvisation:
This is the kind of post that makes me glad that the "Great Blog Silence" is over.

Posted by Anonymous Jeff on 4/09/2006 12:09:00 AM : Permalink  

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